Michigan response team to help deal with 'surge in human remains'

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Michigan has activated a response team made up of medical, law enforcement and funeral home personnel to help deal with "the surge in human remains during the COVID-19 pandemic," state officials said Wednesday.

The Michigan Mortuary Response Team is comprised of about 40 medical examiners and investigators, law enforcement, forensic scientists, chaplains and funeral directors. Wednesday's action marks the first time the team has been activated in its 10-year history.

The sign for Swanson Funeral Home with McNichols Road in the background in Detroit on April 23, 2020.  Swanson Funeral Home is in 48235, one of the zip codes with the highest number of COVID-19 cases.

"The team provides safe and secure transfer, identification and storage of human remains until funeral homes can help families make plans," said a press release from the Michigan State Police Emergency Management and Homeland Security Division.

The initiative is being overseen by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Service's Bureau of EMS, Trauma and Preparedness, and the Michigan Funeral Directors Association.

"Sufficient space for remains at some local hospitals has become an issue," Michigan Department of Health and Services spokesman Bob Wheaton said in an email. "Activation of MI-MORT will address that need and provide additional space to address the surge in deaths.

"As the number of COVID-19 fatalities in Michigan during a period of less than two months climbed to more than 3,000, it was clear that hospitals needed storage capacity relief — particularly in Southeast Michigan," Wheaton said.

Timothy Schramm, funeral director for Howe-Peterson Funeral Home & Cremation Services in Wayne County, and commander of the Mortuary Response Team, said the team will help people who are already grieving. 

“This is a challenging time for health care facilities and families across our state, particularly those experiencing loss," he said. "Michiganders who lose a loved one as a result of COVID-19 shouldn’t have to worry about whether they can make final arrangements.

"Our volunteers are dedicated to providing comfort and reassurance that a person’s remains are safe and properly, professionally handled as quickly as possible at every step," Schramm said.

The response team was established as part of the Bureau of EMS, Trauma and Preparedness' emergency and disaster planning. "Volunteers are trained to assist in a variety of emergency and disaster scenarios," the state press release said.

Health care facilities and local officials may request the team's assistance through their local medical examiner and emergency management team.

"MI-MORT works with the medical examiner and local emergency manager to determine needs," the release said. "A private and secure central collection center has been established to provide security and privacy for patients who died, their families and the local funeral homes."

Anyone interested in volunteering for the team may sign up through the Michigan Volunteer Registry at www.mivolunteerregistry.org.